When Frank Lloyd Wright Comes To Harlem

December 15, 2017

City Lab reports that a wooden panel designed to accompany Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City model declares that students of his proposed utopia must read Jesus, Voltaire, and Walt Whitman, among others, to truly understand the architect’s ideas for a new way of American living.

Broadacre was the heart of Wright’s vision for a better American way, and he constantly tinkered with after starting on it in 1929. In it, there was one acre of land for each family, towers carefully spread apart enough to avoid crowding, and private vehicles on uncongested streets. It would fulfill the beliefs on one of those wooden panels, most importantly: “no private ownership of public needs” and “no public ownership of private needs.”

This was to be the opposite of what Wright saw as “oppressive, red prison-towers [that] loom everywhere in the overgrown village” of New York.

There’s a self-awareness hanging over the show regarding Columbia’s growing presence in Harlem.

Wright has never been mistaken for a humble figure, but he has too often been presented through a narrow lens of his own creative genius, separated from the realities of the world he existed in. Currently inside the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University’s new Manhattanville campus, visitors can experience the architect’s ideas through a refreshingly uncommon lens—the public housing of Harlem.


“Living In America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing,” displays built and unbuilt Wright projects from the New Deal up until his death in 1959 alongside government-aided mass housing by other architects constructed during that same time. (Those buildings still stand just outside the doors of the new gallery.) Traveling chronologically, one can see Wright’s low-density homes fueled by ideas of individual freedom and a collective nostalgia for the American West, paired with the hulking brick apartment towers he loathed.

“You can come here to learn about Broadacre City, learn about Harlem River Houses, and then see how they’re related,” says Jacob Moore, Assistant Director of the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

“Broadacre City is all about the westward expansion, the endless horizon, and man’s right to claim that land and provide for his family though it,”says Moore. Such ideas fit in with a dominantly white idea of how America should function, from the home to the halls of Congress.


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“If public housing was explicitly racially segregated from the beginning, then it’s important to underline how Broadacre City was implicitly racialized,” says Moore.

Wright still had to operate in the same reality that the architects of places like Harlem River Houses and Manhattanville Houses did. Designers, planners, and developers were working in response to legislation like the New Deal, the Housing Acts of 1937 and 1949, and the 1956 Highway Act. “He was an opportunist,” Moore says of Wright. “If there was going to be all this money coming down from the government and a radical rethinking of the way things were going to be done, then he wanted to seize it. It was speculative from get go, so he never had to truly pin it down.”

After the exclusively black Dunbar Apartments, commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, designed by Andrew Jackson Thomas, and completed in 1928, a vast majority of Harlem’s apartments were built by the public sector.

Read the entire article here.

Photo: Project Projects. Images: (1) View of Benjamin Adelman House, 1951. Photoprint. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York); (2) Mattie Carrie Faulkner and her two children moving in, July 29, 1947. Photoprint. Photographs & Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Via source.

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